JACKSON — A few hours before her house was pulled into the Yellowstone River by raging floodwaters, Katy Canetta realized she’d forgotten something: A sketchbook with a drawing of her grandmother who died at age 97 in October, just before Canetta moved from Jackson Hole to Montana to work for Yellowstone National Park.
Her grandma’s name was Nellie. Canetta had drawn the sketch herself. And it was important to her. The drawing made Canetta feel like her grandma was with her when she had it.
“I don’t know why I forgot it,” she said. “I just had to go back and get it.”
So Canetta did, even though she knew it was dangerous. She approached the house, ran inside and grabbed the sketch, as well as a few of her paintings.
When Canetta woke up around 5:30 a.m. Monday, she and her husband hadn’t been in “go” mode. They weren’t expecting the house to start to tip with the bank eroding beneath it. Canetta said it had been 90 feet from the river, and out of the 100-year floodplain.
But when Canetta started seeing the first few inches of soil eroding from her yard and into the Yellowstone River, she said, “it didn’t take very long to realize the house was going to go eventually.”
They woke up neighbors and grabbed what they could think of: some prized fly rods and food for their dog. But things happened so quickly, Canetta didn’t think of the sketch.
“It’s amazing how hard it is to think at the drop of the hat,” she said.
And, even after running back into the house, she didn’t grab everything she wanted.
The jewelry box that she grabbed didn’t have the pearls that her grandma gave her.
“They’re somewhere in Yellowstone,” she said. “And I’m never getting those back.”
Around 7 p.m. Monday, Canetta’s apartment and others that house a handful of Yellowstone National Park employee families finally collapsed into the river, taking with it prized possessions and, in some cases, over a decade of memories.
Videos of the collapse went semi-viral, circulating all over Yellowstone-oriented social media Monday evening.
Other than the video of the Carbella Bridge, a historic single-span truss bridge, that also went viral as it careened down the river near Emigrant, Montana, Canetta’s house was perhaps the most recognizable digital symbol of the catastrophic floods that beset the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem starting Sunday.
After roughly 2 inches of rain in the northern stretch of the national park and southern Montana, a stream height gage in the Gardner River, which flows out of the park and meets the Yellowstone River just east of downtown Gardiner, hit a record high Monday, beating the previous record from 2010 (5.09 feet) by about half a foot.
Just downstream of Gardiner, the Yellowstone River crested roughly 2.5 feet above its all-time peak gauge height of 11.5 feet, set in 1918. In the northeastern reaches of Yellowstone, a gauge on the Lamar River blew its previous record from 1996 (about 12 feet) out of the water.
It was roughly 5 feet higher.
Those colossal flows wiped out the north entrance road from Gardiner to Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park’s administrative headquarters. They severely damaged other northern park roads between Gardiner and Cooke City, a byway that allows people to reach the pristine Lamar Valley for some of the most famous wolf watching in the United States. And they coursed through gateway communities like Gardiner and Red Lodge, Montana, sweeping through downtown Red Lodge and taking out homes and bridges north of Gardiner.
On Tuesday afternoon, when Superintendent Cam Sholly spoke to roughly 100 reporters on a Zoom call, he said the damage was extensive, enough to lead officials to “clear the park of visitors completely.”
Yellowstone closed all of its entrances Monday and evacuated tourists.
The superintendent said Tuesday that any near-term reopening would only apply to the southern loops, though he couldn’t predict when, exactly, that would happen and said that may have to come with a “timed-entry” or other “reservation-type system.”
“Half the park cannot support all the visitation,” Sholly said.
In 2021, the park estimated that just under 4 million visitors entered through its gates.
But this summer those people will almost certainly not be able to see the Lamar Valley and its wildlife.
“I’ll stay as optimistic as possible,” Sholly said Tuesday afternoon. “But even if we got started right now, I’m not sure we could get those roads on the northern end reopened.
“So that will likely stay closed for the rest of the season,” Sholly said.
That was a blow for longtime wolf-watcher Rick McIntyre, who has watched wolves in Yellowstone — especially in the Lamar — since 1994, when he started as a wolf interpreter, explaining the proposed reintroduction to park visitors. McIntyre was shut out of the park, with other wildlife watchers, when it closed for two months as the COVID-19 pandemic began.
But he wasn’t sure how to interpret the news Tuesday when the News&Guide told him.
“OK, well, that’s a pretty big deal,” he said. “I’ll have to figure out how to deal with that.”
The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem experienced a relatively dry winter, and wet spring, during which it stayed cool, keeping snow in the mountains, said Eric Larson, a Livingston-based hydrologist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The rainy spring and remaining snowpack in the mountains “primed the soils” for quicker runoff, Larson said.
Then, Sholly told reporters, the park and surrounding areas received 2 to 3 inches of rain over the weekend, which melted about 5.5 inches of snow.
That caused the “major flood event,” Sholly said, pointing to flows in the Yellowstone River.
A stream gauge on the Yellowstone River near Corwin Springs, Montana, a Highway 89 town between Gardiner and Carbella, was reporting flows of 49,200 cubic feet per second Monday afternoon. The previous record for June 13 was 30,000 cfps, set in 1918.
Cathy Whitlock, a professor at Montana State University and the director of the school’s paleoecology lab who co-authored the 2021 Greater Yellowstone Climate Assessment, drew a distinction between a weather event like the weekend’s flooding and climate change.
“Climate is the long term average of weather events,” she said. “You don’t want to take a long term average and confuse it with what’s happening in the moment. There’s a lot of variability ... as a result of short-term weather systems moving through the area.”
But, Whitlock said, climate modeling shows that mean annual precipitation is going to increase across the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, especially in the spring.
“That increase in spring means that more of the precipitation is going to fall as rain instead of snow,” Whitlock said. “That’s going to lead to spring flooding.”
“These kinds of events are not unexpected,” she said.
Sholly, for his part, acknowledged that it would be important to build park infrastructure in a “resilient way, understanding the future may be different than the past.”
Part of that, he said, could involve relocating the northern entrance road out of the river canyon where the flooding Gardner River ripped it to pieces over the past few days.
Communities flood, park
On Monday morning, Gardiner was “isolated,” Sholly said.
The Montana gateway community has one main road in and out: Highway 89, which goes south into Yellowstone and north to Emigrant. The road into the park was destroyed by river flows, and the road north out of town was underwater, as was land near Emigrant.
Jim Halfpenny, a resident of Gardiner more than 50 years, was getting the lay of the land over ham radio when reached Monday afternoon. The flooding, he said, was more severe than any other floods he’d seen in the area in his lifetime, including those in 1989 and 1997.
“We’ve got people stranded here in Gardiner,” Halfpenny said.
Gardiner photographer, writer and wildlife guide Deby Dixon said her town was discombobulated Monday. At the grocery store, items were flying off the shelves. The area was under a boil water order, with officials saying tap water was not safe to drink. Park and county officials said Tuesday they were still assessing damage to the Gardiner water and sewer lines, and that there were thousands of people stranded in the small town of roughly 1,000 people.
Park County, Montana, Commissioner Bill Berg told reporters Tuesday that restaurant provisions had been dwindling.
Dixon remembered people driving around her block, looking for something to do.
“I had many families walking past my house and admiring the western tanagers,” Dixon said.
It was like the residents were suddenly on display, Dixon said.
Meanwhile, in Yellowstone National Park, wildlife tour operators were trying to get out of the park, dealing with limited service and limited information, including from park staff who were trying to keep up with the rapidly changing situation. Some guides tried to hit the highlights in the morning.
“Everything seemed pretty normal,” said Laura Krusheski, lead guide with Jackson Hole EcoTour Adventures, who was in Yellowstone with seven guests. She thought it odd that she was seeing waterfalls in places she usually didn’t near the Lewis River, though, and started learning more about the situation throughout the day. As she tried to leave the park she was turned around near Madison Junction, and then Canyon Village before leaving via the south entrance.
There were cones in the way, but nobody stopped her on the way out.
All told, Sholly said well over 10,000 visitors were in the park before it was evacuated.
By midday Tuesday, road crews that worked through the night were able to open the roadway north of Gardiner, allowing visitors to leave and locals to come and go, Park County Commissioner Berg said. Work would continue, he said.
But he and Sholly cautioned that rivers may rise again over the weekend.
“The runoff should be over fairly soon,” Berg said during the Tuesday press conference. “And then we should have some predictability. But we’re not quite there yet.”
Business owners, meanwhile, wondered what the closures would mean, particularly for the people who have made a living guiding in the Lamar Valley.
Dixon, who operates an independent tour company, is one of those people.
“Our businesses are dead,” she said. “So many people have been living high off of Lamar Valley for so many years, and it was wiped out overnight.”
The valley is home to some of Yellowstone National Park’s most famous wolf packs, animals that Rick McIntyre has followed for almost three decades and that Audra Conklin Taylor, the owner of Lamar Valley Touring, has built a business around showcasing to visitors.
McIntyre said closing the Lamar would mean missing out on some of the drama between wolves in packs like the Junction Butte Pack — Yellowstone’s most visible.
But he also said it would impact the local wildlife- watching industry, which he and other people connected to the business said brings millions of dollars a year into the local economy.
“It’s certainly a big issue for local people,” McIntyre said.
He thought the area could lose visitor dollars that usually go to local hotels and restaurants.
And tour businesses, McIntyre said, have been hiring, needing more guides.
“Those are all pretty much local people and the jobs are very well paying,” he said. “It’s going to be a really tough summer for people unless they can figure out how to patch up these roads.”
Taylor said people were emailing her to cancel tours even as she spoke with the News&Guide.
“I booked out up to a year in advance,” she said. “And these poor people who have planned with me for many many months now have to rethink what they’re going to be doing.”
Not being able to tour the Lamar Valley for a season, she said, would hurt. That’s where she’s built her business, which is largely focused on taking people to see the northern range wolves. She said she likely won’t be able to work until the roads are passable but, after operating creatively during COVID, she said she was able to build her business and “do well.”
“I’m going to be OK,” she said. “But I’m going to miss my work and my guests and my wildlife.”
Down south in Jackson, wildlife guides were taking a “wait and see” approach Monday, and talked about transitioning people away from northern tours — when the southern part of Yellowstone opened — and relying on Grand Teton National Park in the meantime.
“This is going to have an enormous effect on us,” said Tenley Thompson, general manager at Jackson Hole EcoTour Adventures. “Our phone’s been ringing off the hook with people concerned. We have to wait and see the assessment from the park service.”
Sholly said that when the south can reopen depends on the strength of infrastructure in the area.
At the moment, he said, there are issues with a waterline underneath the road near Canyon Village, that the Madison River was right up against the west entrance road Monday, and other areas near the Firehole River that were underwater “to one degree or another.”
Back in Gardiner, Canetta, whose house was carried 5 miles down the Yellowstone River before it crashed into a bridge and sunk — at least according to social media posts — said she, her husband and her dog had found a place to live: a condo in Gardiner.
Sholly told reporters Yellowstone was “working on a full range of actions to support those employees,” and Canetta, who manages the park’s concessionaires, felt supported. Park officials helped find housing for the displaced employees Monday, Canetta said, adding that it “sounds like they have housing for us” in Mammoth after power and water is restored.
She praised Sholly’s response to the disaster, calling him a “pretty amazing leader,” and the local community for supporting her and others whose homes were washed away in the floods.
That doesn’t mean Canetta and her husband are out of the woods though. She said their insurance didn’t cover flood damage, and she was hoping for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA.
Sholly couldn’t say Tuesday where, exactly, funds for repairs in Yellowstone and gateway towns would come from.
Still, ogling aside, Canetta said she hopes the loss of her home — and the viral videos that accompanied it — will increase awareness for the situation southern Montana finds itself in.
“It’s devastating, obviously, right?” she said of watching her home flow downstream online. “But if it can raise awareness about how severe this valley is going to be suffering in the next few weeks, then good.”
In the meantime she’s in a bit of limbo, waiting to find a permanent place to call home after moving up to Gardiner from Jackson Hole, where she worked for Grand Teton National Park for years.
“We just left our home behind and now our new one is in the river,” Canetta said.